Mead Chapel name removed in acknowledgement of its namesake’s role in eugenics

Former Vermont governor and alumnus John Mead, whose monetary gift funded the creation of the chapel, urged legislation based on eugenics theory in the 1900s

By Riley Board, Abigail Chang, and Lucy Townend

Abigail Chang Mead Chapel will now be referred to as “The Middlebury Chapel” or just “the chapel.”

Middlebury’s Mead Memorial Chapel, named for John Mead, a Vermont governor and member of the class of 1864, lost the name Mead this morning in acknowledgement of its namesake’s role in promoting eugenics in Vermont during the early 1900s. 

The piece of stone bearing the chapel’s name was removed as of this morning.

In a message to the community, college President Laurie Patton and George Lee, chair of the Board of Trustees, announced that a working group and the trustees had engaged in a careful deliberative process and decided to remove the Mead name. “We want to stress upfront that this was a process involving deep reflection and discussion. No issue like this should be undertaken lightly or often,” they wrote. 

The chapel will now be referred to as “The Middlebury Chapel” or just “the chapel.” 

In 1914, Mead and his wife Mary Madelia Sherman donated $74,000 to the college to create a new chapel. In 1912, two years before his donation, Mead gave a farewell address to the Vermont legislature in which he advocated for the use of eugenic theory in creating legislation and policy. His comments in that speech about marriage restrictions, segregation and sterilization inspired the research behind the Eugenics Survey of Vermont and led to the legalization of voluntary eugenical sterilization two decades later. 

The renaming follows unanimous decisions in the Vermont House and Senate earlier this year to “sincerely apologize and express sorrow and regret” for the state’s role in the eugenics movement, including the forced sterilization of 250 Vermonters. 

Abigail Chang
The chapel’s iconic spire, located at the highest point on campus, is a prominent feature of the college’s landscape.

A Middlebury working group convened in May after the Vermont Legislature’s apology to examine the college’s relationship to Vermont’s eugenics history and the role of Governor Mead. 

After reviewing archival research regarding Mead and the history of eugenics in Vermont, considering the history and use of the chapel today, and reflecting on actions taken by other organizations that acknowledged historical connections to eugenics, the group recommended that the Mead name be removed.

“Following its review, citing his central role in advancing eugenics policies that resulted in harm to hundreds of Vermonters, the working group determined that ‘the name of former Governor Mead on an iconic building in the center of campus is not consistent with what Middlebury stands for in the 21st century,’” Lee and Patton wrote in their email this morning.

Patton then sent the working group’s recommendation to the Board of Trustees’ Prudential Committee, which voted unanimously to remove the name.

Abigail Chang
The Mead name was removed from above the chapel door this morning.

The email from Patton and Lee also clarified that the decision was not made in response to student protest, nor was it an effort to erase part of the college’s history. The college said they “will be candid” regarding the decision to remove the Mead name where there are currently references to the chapel and that they are considering “educational signage.”

The chapel is an iconic feature of Middlebury’s landscape and branding. It marks entry into the Middlebury community as the site of convocation, appears on merchandise and can be seen far and wide due to its location at the highest point on campus. 

In addition, alumni of the college, along with faculty and staff and their children, can use Mead Chapel for weddings.

Mead’s financial gift to the college was not conditional upon his name being put on the building, so the college is not obligated to return the gift to the Mead family. Changing the name is not a fundraising opportunity, and there are currently no plans to rename the chapel, according to the announcement. 

Other signage around campus and text on the website containing the Mead name had not been changed at the time of writing, but is expected to be altered soon.